By Kabir Altaf
Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (FSG 2012) describes the Asian response to the colonial encounter. The book covers the decades from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II. Mishra argues that the West “has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined–and unimagined–the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples.” His book does not attempt to replace this Eurocentric perspective with an Asia-centric one, but “seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power–increasingly untenable–are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading” (8).
Asian intellectuals responded to European colonization in many different ways. Some argued that Asians had been colonized because they lacked scientific knowledge and were technologically inferior to Europeans. Thus, the only way to get rid of the foreigners was to learn their ways– a response that can be called “Westernization”. Others advocated a return to a pure and traditional culture, whether Islam in India and the Ottoman Empire or Confucianism in China. Sometimes, the same thinker would move from one position to the other, as in the case of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), who initially believed, like the more well-known Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) that the basis of success in the modern world was the mastery of science. Mishra quotes: “‘O, sons of the East,’ he wrote in 1879, ‘don’t you know that the power of the westerners and their domination over you came about throughout their advance in learning and education, and your decline in those domains’ ” (58). By the end of his life, however, Al-Afghani became one of the founders of what is today known as pan-Islamism.
In the early 1880s, when he returned to India from the Ottoman Empire, Al-Afghani had come to disagree completely with Sir Sayyid. He believed that the latter was a “deluded and parochial Westernizer, who was blind to the fate of his co-religionists elsewhere and the malafide intentions of the British in Muslim lands” (92). Al-Afghani believed that Indian Muslims, like those elsewhere, “should awaken and join other Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in a united front against the British. At the same time, Islam for Muslims ought to remain the main source of strength and values; they should not be deluded by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s pro-British agenda. And neither Hindus nor Muslims should turn their back on their traditions” (96). His previous stint in India had alerted Al-Afghani to the advantages of Western science and knowledge. Now, upon his return, India served as a warning against those advocating total Westernization.
After leaving India, Al-Afghani went into exile in Paris. There, he and Mohammad Abduh, an Egyptian exile, started a secret society of Muslims dedicated to the unification and reform of Islam. It was in the magazine that the two started that the interpretation of jihad as an individual rather than communal duty appeared. Abduh and Al-Afghani worked hard to find messages in the Koran that could fit their political program of awakening the Muslim masses. In summing up the end of Al-Afghani’s intellectual career, Mishra writes: “He was among the new lay educated men, the first people from outside the traditionalist world of Islamic scholarship to reckon with the apparently fallen state of Muslims: the predecessor of India’s Muhammad Iqbal as well as Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb and Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden. His devised solutions also anticipated the two main and interconnected Muslim responses to the West in the modern era: modernism, which sought to strengthen a revealed religion against the challenge of Western knowledge and power, and Islamism, which attempted to reshape the West-dominated world itself according to a utopian and revolutionary understanding of Islam” (120). In our post 9/11 world, however, it is important to note that Al-Afghani’s Islamism did not come out of a place of religious fanaticism but out of a strong belief in anti-Imperialism. Too often people seem to see Muslims as uniquely fundamentalist. It is important to understand that even bin Laden and his followers were responding to what they perceived as the imperialist actions of the West. This explains why they chose to strike New York City, “the very capital of Western modernity” (122).
Just as intellectuals from India and the Muslim world evolved in their thinking from advocating Westernization to advocating pan-Islamism, Chinese intellectuals also responded to colonialism by advocating either liberalization or a return to Confucianism. Mishra focuses on Liang Qichao (1873-1929). Early in his life, after China’s 1895 defeat by Japan, Liang arrived in Beijing with his teacher Kang Youwei to compete for a seat in the civil service exam. Initially, Liang was loyal to the ruling Qing order; however, he had begun to see that China’s old monarchic system had become a force for the status quo and was now capable of nothing more than maintaining the ruling dynasty in power. Mishra writes: “Liang was beginning to realize that, however admirable in itself, the old Chinese order was not capable of generating the organizational and industrial power needed for survival in a ruthless international system dominated by the nation-states of the West. Though educated traditionally, he had already begun to drift away from the narrow world of Chinese scholarship and imperial service. And he was to move far from the ideas of his great teacher and mentor” (144). After traveling in the United States in the early 1900s, Liang began to “lose his faith in people’s rights as the cure-all to autocracy as his indictment of American democracy grew”(172). Liang had previously spent some years in exile in Meiji Japan and believed that Japan’s success “had proved that an authoritarian state could be more effective than liberal democratic institutions in building a modern nation” (175). Mishra writes: “As Liang saw it, China wasn’t faced with a choice of political systems. Such were its circumstances–a weak and ineffectual government, and a poorly educated and ethnically diverse population in a large country–that an autocracy was a necessity. A democratic republic would quickly lead to war between the military and the people, between lower and upper classes, one province and another; and revolutions would occur frequently, sapping the strength and dedication to the common good the Chinese nation needed to deal with external threats” (175). Fundamentally, Liang believed that only a benign autocracy would create a centralized state that would forge the Chinese people into a united citizenry.
Just as Al-Afghani’s views changed drastically over the course of his life, Liang’s views would also undergo a shift. After the failure of the 1919 May Fourth Movement–in which students protested the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles–Liang came to believe that it was Confucianism that would save China. Mishra quotes him as follows: “[Of] the methods of relieving spiritual famine, I recognize the Eastern-Chinese and Indian–to be, in comparison, the best. Eastern learning has spirit as its departure; Western learning has matter as its point of departure” (212). Over his lifetime, Liang’s views on how best to respond to colonialism in China had changed drastically. He had gone from being a believer in people’s rights, to a believer in benign autocracy, and finally to a believer in the revival of Confucianism.
Unlike India and China, which largely failed in their anti-imperialist revolts, one Asian country which succeeded in becoming a global power was Japan. Eventually, Japan would become an imperialist power in its own right, extending control over much of East Asia. One intellectual who, though initially an admirer of Japan, later came to deplore the country’s growing imperialist tendencies, was India’s Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). After Japan’s victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, Tagore had been prompted to write a verse contrasting the transmission of Buddhism from India to Japan with the need to learn new techniques from the Japanese. However, on his visit to the country in 1916, Tagore was “alarmed to see a country that was then in the midst of an extraordinary growth of national self-confidence and imperialist expansion and preparing, too, for more battles ahead with both old enemies and new friends” (233). The Japanese vogue for patriotism depressed Tagore, who wrote: “I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedoms by their governments… The people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation, and emulate other machines in their collective worldliness” (235). On a return visit in 1929, Tagore began to realize the full extent to which Japan was become an imperialist power on the “Western model”. Mishra writes: “He declared that he would never visit Japan again. His resolve was hardened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and then its extension into China proper in 1937, the early shots in the conquest of Asia–what Japanese militarists would soon call the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (239-40).
In 1935, one of Tagore’s old friends, the poet Yoneijiro Noguchi, wrote to ask him to endorse Japan’s war in China. Mishra quotes Tagore as replying that he thought Noguchi’s conception of Asia “would be ‘raised on a tower of skulls’. ‘It is true,’ he added, ‘that there are no better standards prevalent anywhere else and the so-called civilized peoples of the West are proving equally barbarous.’ But ‘if you refer me to them, I have nothing to say’. Noguchi persisted, pointing to the threat of communism in China. Tagore responded by ‘wishing the Japanese people, whom I love, not success, but remorse'” (240). Tagore was able to see the devastating effects that Japanese imperialism would have on East Asia.
Mishra concludes his book by bringing his argument to the present day. He points out that current Islamic fundamentalist movements such as al-Qaeda have developed for similar reasons as earlier pan-Islamic movements–as a response to a perception of attack by imperialist powers. He writes: “Failure to topple their own regimes, and news of atrocities committed against the devout in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya by pro-Western countries like Israel, India and Russia made them determined to strike the apparent puppet-master, the United States, and set off a worldwide clash between Muslims and the West. After a series of abortive attempts, the militants finally succeeded on 11 September 2001” (279).
Mishra also points out the irony that the current Afghan War, initiated by George Bush after 9/11, was justified by a pledge to bring democracy and development to Afghanistan. He points out that this pledge unwittingly parodied earlier Western interventions in Asia, such as the Anglo-Afghan wars of the late 19th century. Clearly, today’s neocolonialist powers have not learned from history that it is impossible for a colonial power to “win” in Afghanistan.
Finally, Mishra points out that, although India and China have experienced tremendous economic growth, this growth has further widened alarming economic and social disparities. He writes: “It has become clear that development, whether undertaken by colonial masters or sovereign nation-states, doesn’t benefit people evenly within a single territory, not to mention across larger regions” (307). He further argues that the pursuit of endless economic growth– the hope that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans– is not sustainable. In Mishra’s words, this hope “is an absurd and dangerous fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots–the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic” (309).
Several reviewers have criticized Mishra’s attempt to unite Asia intellectually. For example, Aditya Sinha, writing in DNA India, points out that “[Mishra’s thesis] is a bit jarring when evidence keeps popping up of how a different template–race–governs the relationship of Asian countries.” Sinha accuses Mishra’s project of “being a bit idealistic, to say the least”. Sinha further points out that Mishra’s book utilizes almost no primary sources and wholly secondary (or even tertiary) sources. He writes: “Data that has gone through one generation of filtering is now put through another generation of filtering, with the danger of losing sight of what the primary historians were saying originally.” While this is a fair criticism, and one obviously doesn’t have to agree with all of Mishra’s arguments, in my opinion From The Ruins of Empire is an ambitious book that makes some interesting points about the different responses to European colonization as well as the evolution of the views of particular thinkers, particularly those that are less well-known (e.g. Al-Afghani). It is a worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.